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WONDERLAND

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson, Dylan McDermott
Director: James Cox
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: See Review
Length: 104 Minutes
Release Date: February 10, 2004

“I’m gonna tell you a story…a story called ‘Wonderland’.”

Film ****

It's something of pure irony that some of the best stories to be told through cinema can be found in the underworld of sleaze. Paul Thomas Anderson was the first to illustrate this notion with his brilliant breakthrough hit, Boogie Nights, in 1997. That movie was a fictional chronicle of the adult movie industry in the late 70s and early 80s, with the feel of the times ever so raw. It was not only the best film of 1997 for me, but just as much one of the most important films of the decade.

Now comes a powerful, sometimes difficult journey of a film that matches in every way, shape and form the sheer audacity of Anderson's film. It's an account of the events leading up to and following the mysterious, blood soaked homicide that took place on 8763 Wonderland Ave. in July of 1981. Co writer and director James Cox's Wonderland is a masterful piece that mixes fiction and fact to give some strong insight into one of the most bizarre murders in American history, one that has failed to bring forth a single conviction, despite the suspicions the movie presents.

All that can be made of the Wonderland murders is the aftermath found in the crime scene. Four members of a six person drug dealing ring were brutally killed in the house on Wonderland Ave., most likely by a rival gang extracting a bit of revenge. What makes this homicide a special case is the fact that ex-porn star John Holmes was somehow tied to the murder.

Holmes is portrayed by Val Kilmer in a performance that is equal to his flawless channeling of Jim Morrison in The Doors. I'm not too familiar with the real Holmes in terms of dialect and behavior, but Kilmer's portrait convinced me very well that Holmes was a pure train wreck of a man in the early 80s. He was no longer making porn movies, and his daily habits consisted of extreme use of drugs and alcohol, which inevitably lead to his involvement with the people in the home on Wonderland, which consisted of petty low lives and addicts.

Writer/director Cox has structured the story in a unique fashion, by offering multiple versions on what happened and why. The narrative is a reflection of Rashomon, as it offers two interpretations of the same events. The first of which is told from the viewpoint of an uninjured survivor of the hit, David Lind (Dylan McDermott). Interrogated by the cops, Lind reveals a story that points the finger to John Holmes as the culprit of the murder hit on Wonderland. The reason for this is that John was the only one who knew anything about an earlier robbery at the home of nightclub impresario Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). According to Lind's story, John possibly spilled the beans on the robbery to Nash himself, who then backfired with the murder on Wonderland.

The second interpretation of events is given by Holmes, whose story is entirely different from the one Lind delivered. Holmes maintains that Lind, along with fellow Wonderland residents Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson) were stone cold psychopaths looking to make a big score, and robbed Nash with the intention of penning the whole thing on him (Holmes). He also claims that Nash, who was a close associate of his, threaten to kill him if he didn't reveal who robbed him, and where they lived leading, of course, to the brutal murders. It's important when watching to remember that neither story is to be taken as fact, when the fact is that both Holmes and Lind are clearly trying to save their own skin. Both stories obviously bewildered the cops, and they were both free of conviction.

Wonderland also delves into the relationship between Holmes and his free-spirited but underage girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth). Holmes, then estranged from his wife, Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), engaged in rocky, on and off relationship with Dawn, who despite becoming just as much of a drug addict as John, stood by her man for as long as she could. One devastating scene has John pimping Dawn out to Nash just to ensure that his drug supply won't be cut off.

The characters in Wonderland aren't very much likeable, but this isn't a movie where one has to identify with anyone. This is a vivid and raw recreation of a harsh atmosphere, complete with characters that are superbly memorable and written, even if they happen to be only drug addicts and thieves. The sheer brutality of this movie will indeed strike the nerves of those who watch it, but those seeking sympathy with any individual character will be twice as uncomfortable.

The ensemble cast of Wonderland is superbly strong. Among the supporting players, Josh Lucas and Dylan McDermott both turn in some remarkably ferocious tour de forces, and as Holmes' long suffering wife, Lisa Kudrow offers a performance that is completely different than anything she has done. And Kate Bosworth proves she's more than a pretty face as she ventures into her most complex role yet.

James Cox has by far proven himself as a seriously strong filmmaker with his first big entry, and I look forward to see what he delivers next. He has a distinct visual style that accompanies the brutal story flawlessly. Through the use of desaturated colors and bits of grain in the image, Cox paints a strong look to the film that helps in immersing you right into the time, place, and story.

Wonderland represents that dark place that is worth going to every so often in the movies, just like Boogie Nights was.  It absorbs you, grabs you, throws you in face first into some truly intense moments of brutal violence, and once you've been pulled out, if you're like me, you'll hopefully feel as if you have experienced some purely phenomenal cinematic storytelling.

Video ****

Lions Gate have really come into their own over the past couple of years in the DVD market. The past few months have been especially good for the studio, as the quality of their discs have soared enormously. In the case of Wonderland, this may as well be the most outstanding looking disc to come from Lions Gate yet. The anamorphic quality is of top notch quality, embracing the unconventional touches of director James Cox's look to the film, such as grain and color use, to make a strong and unforgettable looking disc. Everything from sharpness to colors to image detail is in pure grand mode, as this also marks one of the first terrific looking discs of the year.

Audio ****

This really caught me by surprise! I had a feeling that the movie's soundtrack was going to be highlighted by several classic rock tunes, but nothing could've prepared me for the overall effect that the 5.1 mix provided. As for the music in the movie, all the songs, including Dobie Gray's "Drift Away", Ted Nugent's "Stranglehold", and T-Rex's "20th Century Boy", sound fantastic and really get the place rocking. The sound mix also scores high points in terms of dialogue clarity and range. The more intense sequences, especially the graphic Wonderland murder shown near the end of the film, present a powerhouse, thunderous effect, making good use of all channels. What a superb piece of audio!

Features ****

Lions Gate's Limited Edition 2-disc set is one of the best packages I've seen so far this year.

Disc 1 includes commentary by James Cox and co-writer Captain Mauzner, Deleted Scenes, Cast Interviews with Val Kilmer, Josh Lucas, Tim Blake Nelson and Eric Bogosian. Also included is a bit from Court TV's "Hollywood at Large" on the Wonderland incident, the actual LAPD Crime Scene Video, photo gallery, trailers and a soundtrack spot.

Disc 2 is the two hour 1998 documentary on John Holmes named Wadd, which traces the porn legend's life from childhood to the status as the King of adult movies.

Summary:

Wonderland is a stunning journey through hell. It will unquestionably be difficult from some viewers to endure but trust me when I say that this is a remarkable and thought-provoking piece of cinema.